Shame is one of those words which is quite difficult to define. It describes an inner feeling of unease that we experience when we have done something wrong or inappropriate. And yet shame is not just something that arises from an inner dialogue within ourselves. It is also something placed upon us by families and communities. Sometimes the shame placed upon an individual by a community is completely at variance with what the internal conscience might be saying. A Muslim woman who falls in love with a non-Muslim is deemed in many cases to have shamed her community. That would not be what she herself feels about the situation. Such shame, sometimes described as ‘honour’ in traditional societies, acts as a strong form of social control operating in these groups. A feeling of shame may or may not have anything to do with morality. For many, shame is a kind of community control, believed to be essential for harmonious order.
It would be easy for us to say that in our modern Western society we are not controlled by any mores that employ shame. We have, it is thought, largely thrown off the customs and ideas of the Victorian era which did dictate and control many aspects of an individual’s life. No longer are we expected to marry the people chosen for us by our parents. Even when marriages fail, families and society generally allow us to make a new start. There are of course examples of behaviour which still bring shame on a family. Few people will be cheerful about having a close relative locked up in prison for a criminal offence. Suicide will affect all those who were close to the one who died. Parents will also be deeply affected when their children damage their own or other people’s lives through reckless behaviour. A feeling of shame caused by the actions of others can still affect all of us from time to time because our lives are linked up with those of other people. What others do and how they behave can still create a miasma of shame into which we may be caught up.
There is another articulation of shame in our society which is perpetrated by Christians. From time to time we pass a church which declares in some way or other on its notice-board that those who do not repent are destined for hell. We have talked about this message before which is summarised by the three words, ‘turn or burn’. I want to reflect for a moment on this message which appears so popular for many churches in this country and around the world. What is this message in fact saying? It is telling a reader that God is one who is only concerned for those who feel shame for their sins. There has to be an internal loathing for their old self so that ‘repentance’, in the way that the congregation defines it, can take place. The alternative is permanent alienation and separation from God as well as the tortures of hell. As most people will pass by without any response, the implied message is that God hates you. He cannot love you because you are ignoring this poster. In short, the poster is seeking to control the reader by telling him/her that the absence of felt shame is the pathway to eternal damnation. Is that really what we want a church to say to a passer-by in the name of the Christian faith?
A message of God’s hate will seldom, if ever, have the power to attract. Some invitation involving acceptance and love by God might possibly help an individual to review their lives and see them in a different perspective. It is hard to imagine that an encouragement to feel shame will ever lead anywhere fruitful. As I think back over my ministry, I cannot remember any occasion where someone became a Christian because they were prompted to feel a fresh sense of shame. The main reasons for someone taking Christianity seriously were because an individual had come to some kind of crossroads in their lives. It might have been a marriage, the arrival of children or because of a bereavement. During the subsequent process of Christian formation and teaching, it would be normal for each person to review their understanding of good and evil. A new Christian would be expected to see life’s priorities in a fresh way as well as undergo some re-education of conscience. Any attempt to control people through encouraging them to feel an enhanced sense of shame would be arguably an extremely unhelpful instruction. Each of us has the task of developing our individual conscience. The way our conscience operates will depend to some extent, on the individual personality. Not everyone will be moved to courageous and heroic good deeds. Some will be free if they wish to withdraw into themselves and no one should condemn the antisocial Christian individual for their shyness. We might in fact feel sorry for them in that they may be missing out on the richness of interpersonal contact.
A Christian in the West is supremely privileged in the way that his or her life is not normally circumscribed by any strong community dynamics involving shame. We do have true choices. As Christians, we also are encouraged to discover freedom. This freedom emerges from our sense of following a master who desires that we should live life in all its richness and fullness. Within this discipleship is a belief in a God who loves us unconditionally. We are called not to live a life controlled by the forces of shame or fear. Rather we seek to find a life which opens itself up to creativity, freedom and joy. God knows that we each struggle with weakness and sin. But the nature of his forgiving love means that we can constantly pick ourselves up and move forward in this glorious journey and pilgrimage towards a transformed and transfigured humanity. ‘It is no longer I but Christ who lives within me’. This is not a place of shame or fear, but rather it is one of liberated joy.